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Critics slam R.I. congressional candidate for family-funded super PAC

A mail piece sent to voters this week was funded by Aaron Regunberg’s family members

Former state Representative J. Aaron Regunberg, a Democratic candidate for Congress.Handout

PROVIDENCE — A candidate for Congress is taking heat this week for a new super PAC funded by members of his family.

A mailer in support of Aaron Regunberg, one of the candidates running to replace David Cicilline in Rhode Island’s First Congressional District, was sent out this week by super PAC Progress Rhode Island.

The mail piece calls Regunberg “Rhode Island’s progressive champion” with a comic-book style image of Regunberg comparing him to a “superhero.”

According to Federal Election Commission filings, the PAC’s only two donors so far are Regunberg’s father-in-law, James Cielinski, who donated $125,000, and his mother Erica Regunberg, who donated $5,000.


The new super PAC and its connections to Regunberg’s family were first reported by WPRI. Campaign donations are subject to strict limits, currently set at $3,300 for an individual. But groups like super PACs can spend more than that to help a candidate get elected, as long as they do so without any coordination with the campaign.

The Progress Rhode Island PAC was formed on June 7, according to the FEC filings, and Regunberg’s two family members donated the following week. According to their independent expenditure filing with the FEC, the group has so far spent $64,000 on behalf of Regunberg on the mailer and “research.”

Regunberg says his campaign did not coordinate with his family members on the new super PAC.

“There are a lot of outside vehicles that are spending heavily in this race for different candidates,” Regunberg said in a statement through a spokesperson. “There’s been absolutely no coordination with this entity. Our campaign system is broken which is why I always have, and still do, oppose Super PAC spending.”

State Senator Ana Quezada, another Democrat running in the congressional race, slammed Regunberg in a scathing statement, arguing “he’s had his wealthy father-in-law throw more money at a single piece of mail than most Rhode Island families make in a year.”


“Don’t play cute with us, Aaron. We see you for who you are: a privileged rich kid with no real job experience who’s cosplaying ‘man of the people,’” Quezada said. “The most progressive thing Aaron Regunberg could have done in this race was use his privilege and considerable resources to help elect one of several credible candidates who are women and/or people of color, but he was never about that because it doesn’t serve his ego or his ambitions.”

A mail piece sent in support of Aaron Regunberg by super PAC Progress Rhode Island.Handout

Gabe Amo, another Democrat in the race, also criticized the spending, writing in a statement that serving in Congress “shouldn’t be limited to candidates with exceptionally wealthy family members.”

“I am concerned that my opponent expects Rhode Islanders to believe that there’s been no coordination between his campaign and the super PAC entirely funded by his immediate family,” Amo said. “I think we should all play by the same rules.”

An outside PAC called Democrats Serve has so far reported spending $36,000 in support of Amo, according to FEC filings.

Regunberg said if elected, he would fight to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that allowed for unlimited independent expenditures, and “get dark money out of politics.”

The Regunberg mailer is not the only outside spending in the race. The BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has produced a TV ad for Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who is seen as one of the frontrunners along with Regunberg.


As first reported by WPRI, political operative Dan Sena publicly tweeted the Bold PAC’s plans, using industry lingo to explain the commercial’s reach and the households that will be receiving the mailers. The PAC is not allowed to directly coordinate with the campaign.

A spokesperson for the Bold PAC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how much the outside group is spending to support Matos, but a mail piece sent by the PAC focusing on gun safety arrived in mailboxes in the First District on Friday.

Matos’ campaign defended the outside spending while criticizing Regunberg.

“These groups believe, as we do, that Sabina is the right person to serve the people of Rhode Island in Congress,” said spokesperson Evan England. “Unlike one of our opponents, these organizations have been open and vocal about their support of Sabina and the campaign has publicized their support. This is a far cry from denouncing outside spending while your wealthy father-in-law drops six figures into your family-funded super PAC.”

A mail piece sent in support of Sabina Matos by the Bold PACHandout

John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the FEC’s coordination rules and enforcement are “quite weak.”

“That is why we see Tweets like the one from the Super PAC that is supporting Sabina Matos sent that are just so blatant,” Marion said. “And that is why we see close family members creating single-candidate Super PACs like we have for Aaron Regunberg.”

“The Regunberg mailer shows how far we are in reality from the campaign finance system that the five justices of the Supreme Court imagined when they decided the Citizens United case,” Marion said. “In the justices’ mind independent spenders would be truly separate from the candidate and their campaign. It’s hard to fathom how a Super PAC created for the sole purpose of electing a close relative is truly independent. This isn’t the first example of a close relative making a Super PAC for a candidate, and unfortunately, it won’t be the last either.”


In addition to Matos, Regunberg, Amo and Quezada, also running in the crowded Democratic primary for the First Congressional seat are Stephanie Beauté, Walter Berbrick, Sandra Cano, Don Carlson, Stephen Casey, Spencer Dickinson, John Goncalves and Allen Waters.

On the Republican side, Gerry Leonard and Terri Flynn are facing off in the Sept. 5 primary.

Steph Machado can be reached at Follow her @StephMachado. Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.